Friday, January 25, 2008

Vulgate Verse: blessed are you, the poor

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Now that I have finished doing the Vulgate Verses book, I am commenting on some of these verses here in this blog, focusing on the verses that have a special significance for religious literacy and cultural literacy in general, completely aside from the Latin itself. You can see other posts in this series by clicking on the Vulgate Verses label.

The verse I wanted to comment on today comes from one of the renderings of the "Sermon on the Mount," and in particular the section of that sermon called the "Beatitudes."

The Beatitudes appear in the gospels of both Matthew and Luke, but they are not identical. The wikipedia article provides an overview of the notable differences. Perhaps most importantly, the list of the blessed is considerably longer in Matthew. There are only three blessings in Luke (or four, depending on how Luke 6:22-23 is regarded), while Matthew includes four more which are not found in Luke (the meek, the merciful, the peacemakers, and the pure of heart).

Yet there is a grammatical different between the two sets of Beatitudes that seems to me very remarkable. Here is the First Beautitude, as it appears in Matthew 5:3:

μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοὶ τῶ πνεύματι, ὅτι αὐτῶν ἐστιν ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.
Beati pauperes spiritu: quoniam ipsorum est regnum caelorum.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. (KJV)

Here is the version in Luke 6:20:

μακάριοι οἱ πτωχοί, ὅτι ὑμετέρα ἐστὶν ἡ βασιλεία τοῦ θεοῦ
Beati pauperes, quia vestrum est regnum Dei.
Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. (KJV)

As you can see there are several notable differences here, such as Matthew's inclusion of the phrase "in spirit" (similarly, Matthew speaks about those who "hunger and thirst after righteousness," while Luke speaks only of those who "hunger"), and the variation between "kingdom of heaven" and "kingdom of God."

What is most intriguing to me, however, is the difference in pronouns, which the King James Version actually captures quite beautifully, "Blessed be ye poor, for yours is the kingdom of God." Luke presents Jesus addressing the poor, speaking to them in the second-person form (second person plural, to be precise - given that King James English can distinguish between "ye" and "thee"). In Matthew, this element of direct address is lacking.

I think that is a very powerful aspect of the version in Luke, although it is the version in Matthew which is most commonly cited. Perhaps the version in Matthew is so much better known because it is longer, but the second-person form of address found in Luke is very much worthy of our attention. Here are the three Beatitudes as presented in Luke:

Blessed be ye poor: for yours is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are ye that hunger now: for ye shall be filled.
Blessed are ye that weep now: for ye shall laugh.

So simple, and so powerful. What a difference a pronoun can make.

Here is an image of the "Blessing Christ" from a medieval manuscript, c. 1200. The banner shows the opening words of the Lord's prayer.



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